Entertainment

How Imitating Elvis Became an Industry


Jay Zanier of Collingwood, Ont., performs onstage at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis

Photograph by Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images

Jay Zanier of Collingwood, Ont., performs onstage at the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest in Memphis

Clarifies ownership of Elvis Presley Enterprises in eighth paragraph.

Ronny Craig has been performing as an Elvis Presley impersonator and promoting tribute concerts for two decades. From 2011 to 2013 he helped stage a contest in Memphis called King of the World, which sought to crown the world’s best Elvis impersonator—or tribute artist, as many prefer to be called. The contest didn’t turn much of a profit, and Craig and his partners shut the business down. “There are so many players trying to get a hand in the pie,” he says. “It’s Elvis wars.”

At least three competitions will crown a champion tribute artist at this year’s Elvis Week, the annual remembrance of Presley’s death, which concludes this weekend in Memphis. That includes the Ultimate, which boasts a $20,000 top prize, and Images of the King, which features separate divisions—the Early Years, the ’70s, and a category for Elvis-impersonating youth. The Elvis Entertainers Network World Championship, a spinoff of Craig’s old event, drew 35 performers and hundreds of paying guests to an airport hotel.

Why are there so many different shows crowning top tributes to the King? The mini-industry began in Memphis a decade after Presley’s death. It was the brainchild of Edward “Doc” Franklin, a veterinarian and nightclub owner who ministered to the animals Elvis and his wife, Priscilla, kept at the Graceland mansion.

In the summer of 1987 he figured there’d be a big crowd in Memphis for the 10th anniversary, so he took out an ad in USA Today promoting a tribute contest. “He was a man who could see things other people couldn’t,” says his widow, Jackie Myrick. Thirty Elvii—Myrick’s phrase for multiple Elvises—showed up at the Franklins’ nightclub, Bad Bob’s, for a contest called Images of Elvis.

The regular customers showed up for the shows, and so did the pilgrims. “We would have beer trucks parked in the parking lot, we were selling so many drinks,” says Myrick. Soon, promoters were staging tribute concerts in such places as La Crosse, Wisc., Lake George, N.Y., and, of course, Las Vegas.

Those early shows were often controversial. “The older generation of Elvis fans were so dogmatically faithful to the real Elvis that they saw Elvis impersonators almost as false prophets,” says John Paget, a documentary filmmaker who chronicled the subculture in the 2000 film Almost Elvis. Tribute artists weren’t fully sanctioned until 2007, when Elvis Presley Enterprises, the business arm of the musician’s estate, held its first Elvis Week contest, called the Ultimate.

“The Ultimate is like the Super Bowl,” says Paget, and the Franklins’ original contest was more akin to college basketball’s March Madness. “It was seven days long, the performance went from 5 p.m. to midnight, and then everyone moved into the hotel lobby for all-night karaoke. It was really a place for people who wanted to overdose on Elvis.”

Keeping track of all the Elvis contests can be dizzying. So is the recent history of Elvis Presley Enterprises. Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie, sold a “major interest” of the company in 2005, according to the EPE website. That stake wound up in the portfolio of a company called Core Media Group, which also owned the rights to the reality TV series American Idol and Muhammed Ali’s brand. Core, which is owned by private equity group Apollo Global Management (APO), sold its stake in EPE to Authentic Brands Group and Joel Weinshanker, CEO of the National Entertainment Collectibles Association, last year.

EPE’s licensing business generated $32 million in 2012, according to the Associated Press. David Beckwith, a spokesman for EPE, declined to share more recent numbers. Some Elvis tribute contest promoters pay license fees for the right to use Presley’s license, but Craig says EPE hasn’t cracked down on unlicensed contests. That’s good for promoters, and good for the Elvii.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek covering small business and entrepreneurship.

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